Council has to show leadership to avoid dysfunction – Expert

As one Cape Town university (the University of Cape Town or UCT) rises out of its most serious governance crisis in 100 years, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) stumbles headlong into potentially its most damaging governance crisis in more than 60 years. With a combined 2023 budget of around ZAR7.5 billion (about US$402 million), the public has the right to know what on earth is going on at these two South African public institutions, only about 20km apart.

UCT recently came to the verge of collapse when, under pressure, the university council appointed retired Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Lex Mpati and a team to get to the bottom of things. The panel report, titled simply Independent Investigation into UCT Governance Final Report, pointed the finger at the university leadership unveiling the crudest forms of racism (yes, black people can be racists), bullying, humiliation, threats, lies and insults that brought the famed institution to its knees.

To the credit of the Mpati report, it cuts right through the middle of the crap at UCT, bowing neither to the paralysis of white liberal guilt nor the opportunism of faux black radicalism in making its assessment.

Most importantly, it reveals how a succession of council leaders made bad decisions, failed to hold the vice-chancellor to account, and kicked the accountability can down the road until collapse was inevitable.

University of the Western Cape

UWC, on the other hand, put on its own circus in the rather straightforward matter of choosing the next vice-chancellor. In all my years in higher education leadership, I have never seen such an amateurish display of fitfulness.

The council, the highest decision-making body, advertises for a new vice-chancellor. It then stops its own process and hires a search company to find more applicants. Council then continues the process and charges a senior appointments committee (SAC) from its own members to lead the process. So far, so good.

The three short-listed candidates (let’s call them X, Y and Z) make public presentations to stakeholders, and it becomes crystal clear that a band of students had been mobilised to support one of them (Z) while openly deriding the other two (X and Y). The council then, wisely, decides to ignore this student noise recognising, perhaps, its purpose – to derail the process to choose a vice-chancellor.

By the way, because of the immaturity of South Africa’s vicious campus politics, universities need to rethink these public presentations which serve only to demean human beings offering themselves for leadership service.

The senate, comprised mainly of senior academics, fulfils its statutory role and votes to shortlist three candidates in order of preference. The Institutional Forum, a body of stakeholders that merely advises council, shortlists two candidates.

The SAC – repeat, a senior committee of the council itself – interviews the candidates and, on the basis of a mountain of evidence in hand (a senate report, an institutional forum report, interview data, referee reports, applications of candidates, and the public presentations), makes a recommendation to council to appoint candidate X.

In any self-respecting higher education institution, the next step is simple and straightforward: the council respects the intensive work of its own senior appointments committee (SAC) and the order of preference of senate (also candidate X, in this case) and makes the final decision.

Council has to show leadership

At this point, all hell breaks loose. The IF, whose statutory role is to advise council, NOT to dictate to this governing authority, starts to raise the flimsiest of questions to undermine the process. The process to appoint the VC is rushed – the incumbent leaves only at the end of next year (no, seriously).

The SAC report to council did not capture everything that happened at the public presentations (no, seriously). There was not enough information in the substantial senior appointments committee report (no, seriously). Typically, a chair and vice-chair of council would dismiss these objections as frivolous.

A legal opinion confirmed that the process for the appointment of a vice-chancellor was unimpeachable. The two members of the Institutional Forum who were actually on the SAC confirmed that the report was accurate. Incredibly, council votes on whether it would accept the report and recommendation of its own committee, the SAC, and a majority said ‘no’. Council also voted to re-start the entire process.

By the way, UWC’s tendency to postpone decisions on vice-chancellor appointments also happened the last time around, which caused a furious candidate, Professor Saleem Badat, to leave and head up Rhodes University. Such indecision in making leadership choices because of campus politics does huge damage to the credibility of a university in the public eye.

This time, the senate demanded a special meeting with council to explain itself, given that 79% of members of this senior academic body had supported the senior appointments committee’s recommendation for candidate X. The council will reconvene.

As I found in the research for my book, Corrupted: A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities, universities become dysfunctional, not because there are no rules, but because they defy their own rules.

This is so obviously the case at UWC. What was, until recently, the crown jewel among higher education institutions in South Africa, not least for its ability to transcend its apartheid history, UWC now stands on the brink of a slide into dysfunctionality.

It has one more chance to clean up the mess caused by raucous individuals in an advisory body; failure to do so almost certainly puts UWC on the slippery path to dysfunctionality and, before long, the inevitability of government intervention.

Unless the council, as did the UCT governing authority at 2am one morning, finds its spine and shows leadership in doing the right thing.

This article was first published in TimesLive. Jonathan Jansen is a distinguished professor in the faculty of education, Stellenbosch University, and a former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, South Africa.

Full disclosure by the author: I agreed to be a referee for more than one candidate in the long list for the UWC vice-chancellor’s race. I have no interest in the outcome other than that a public university abides by its own rules of governance.